As anyone who coaches very young children knows, you don’t see much deliberate passing in matches involving four, five or six year olds.
Very young players are totally focused on the ball. They might have a rough idea of where the goal is but they really don’t “see” their team mates, even if one of them happens to be in a position where they could receive a pass.
Goals are scored when players force the ball into the opposition’s net. There is no subtlety, no clever little touches around the box. And why should there be? The children are playing the game the only way they know how, without constraints, and it works!
But the time comes when even the most skilled player on your team will find it hard to batter their way through the other team’s defence.
When children have been playing for a couple of years or so, the gap between the naturally skilful players and the rest starts to narrow and the child that used to dribble past four defenders and score is suddenly running into “brick walls” and losing possession.
That’s when youth football coaches start thinking about how they can encourage their players to move into supporting positions (places where they can receive a pass) and for the ball carrier to get his or her head up and pass the ball before they are tackled.
The three games I’ve described below will help your team develop into a good, passing side but it won’t happen overnight. Eventually, the day will come when your team manages to string two, three, even four passes together. And that’s one of those days you won’t forget – the day your team started to play “proper” football!
There are certain key skills that must be present before your players can be expected to get their heads up, pass and move to supporting positions.
They must be able to pass the ball accurately and with the right amount of pace over short distances. They must also be able to receive the ball confidently and be able to hold off an opposition player who challenges them for the ball. Developing good peripheral vision is also important.
Four common mistakes to watch for:
A hard first touch: the ball should not bounce off the receiver’s body. It should be received gently and kept close to their body but not so close as to make it difficult to pass. A ball should not be “trapped”.
Not being in line with the ball: many children tend to be side-on to the ball as it arrives, attempt to control it as it passes them and end up missing it altogether. They will find it much easier to get a touch on the ball if they move their body so that they are facing the direction of the ball.
Not choosing the right part of the body to receive or pass with: young players should be encouraged to receive a ground pass with the inside of their foot and direct it away from pressure before passing. Initially, passing should also be done with the inside of the foot. Passing with other parts of the foot can come later.
Inaccurate or weak passing: to improve accuracy and power, your players should be taught to plant their non-striking foot so that it is pointing in the direction they want the ball to go and lock the ankle of their kicking foot as they strike the midline of the ball. The leg which is used to kick the ball should follow-through in the direction of the pass.
How to encourage your players to move after passing.
The first step is to emphasise the need for players to move immediately after they pass the ball. At this stage it is not important where they move to, they just need to move.
Set-up: place your players in groups of four in 15-yard square playing areas with five cones inside it. Each player stands by a cone. One ball per group.
How to play: The player with the ball passes to another player and immediately runs to the spare cone.
Challenge your players to play with speed and accuracy – five minutes without a mistake is a good target.
How to encourage players to move into a position where they can receive a pass.
Once your players have got used to the idea that they must move after passing the ball, it is time to introduce some purpose into their movement.
Set-up: use the same player groups and the same playing areas as above.
How to play: three players try to keep the ball away from the fourth player. Emphasise to your players the need for immediate movement to a place where they can receive the ball after they pass. The key concept is to keep out of the defender’s shadow.
How to encourage players to use full width of pitch.
It is rare to see a team of eight or nine year olds make full use of the playing area in training or on match days. The whole match is often played in a narrow channel down the middle of the pitch.
Set-up: play 4v4 on a 30 yards long by 20 yards wide area with goals at each end. Place two players on each touchline just outside the playing area. Their job is to receive passes from players on the pitch and pass back to the team that passed to them. Touchline players can move freely up and down the line. They cannot be tackled.
Make it a condition that goals cannot be scored unless the ball is played to a touchline player during the build up.
Putting it all together.
Play a small-sided game with two conditions: that all restarts are made by the goalkeeper who must roll the ball out and players are limited to three touches of the ball.
Coaching your players to use the full width of the pitch, get out of defenders’ shadows and move immediately after passing to a place where they can receive a pass back.
Play games like these for several weeks and you should begin to see an improvement in the way your team plays. Your players will begin to pass the ball more, support each other better and keep possession of the ball for longer periods.
Look out Arsenal!